It would be easy to assume Meriem Bennani’s video works—real life peppered with an array of digitalisations including comical anthropomorphism where houses sing about their condition (Neighbourhood Goggles, 2019)—are charmingly silly.“There’s manipulation of the footage and sound where I add to it or there’s actual animations that have their own life in the film and interact with the live action footage, and always a ‘host’ character who is emblematic of each project,” explains Bennani of her stylistic fingerprint.
“They are tools for storytelling and creating and changing meaning that give me greater control over the editing process, not to put a lighter spin.” However, her non-linear aesthetic can be likened to the effect of eating pop rocks—fun but ultimately raising questions on what exactly is going on inside. Bennani’s absurdist artistic language and natural inclination towards humour sees her storytelling exist between reality and fiction, and art and film.
Often inspired by Morocco despite having spent the last decade in New York, she films family members, people she encounters, even individuals from YouTube or the street that she’d like to meet. However, though Bennani’s bottom line investigates charged socio-political scenarios, she is neither documentarian nor journalist. She is simply interested in emotions of others, and uses her own intuition to motivate, deconstruct, and create discourse with a side of digital play.
“It is a little bit like a documentary process when I meet people I don’t know and ask them to be themselves while filming,” says Bennani. “It’s extremely nerve-wracking because I don’t know people will react to my humor, or how they’ll place me, so there’s an awkwardness around how I have to push to get what I need to make a story, but at the same time, be respectful of people’s boundaries.”
Relying on the emotional intelligence of her audience, Bennani activates music and video editing to offer entry to political issues. “I’m not scared of heaviness, but I don’t want to talk about political things directly because I’m more interested in how I can access that through the story of someone,” she clarifies. Much of her work explores the politics of language as both the idea of the language of the video medium, and as a subject. Largely informed by her Moroccan background, Bennani explains Morocco’s language is a dialect. “It’s not written, it doesn’t have a tradition of being archived, there’s no literature.
Art Dubai Bar; Ghariba by Meriem Bennani Art Dubai Projects. 2017
It’s all oral, extremely fluid, and the only way that our history has been crystalised on paper is through other people’s languages— French and classical Arabic,” she says, adding, “there’s always this thing where it feels like we have access to so many systems of thought because we have so many ways of structuring our sentences, but at the same time it can slow us down.”
As a consequence and result of this Bennani created her own visual language to discuss the specificity of hybridised identity, most recently in MISSION TEENS: French School in Morocco (2019, currently showing at Fondation Louis Vuitton), which tackles Morocco’s colonisation and cultural tensions through interviews with teenagers and an animated donkey in her oft-used multi-channel video technique. By digging into charged topics through people, Bennani is in constant negotiation with her subjects and herself.
“For MISSION TEENS, filming teenagers was all about transgression and that’s what interesting, but finding the balance between their willingness to speak, you wanting to get something that feels boundary-pushing, and at the same time respectful to their families is complicated,” she says. Siham and Hafida (2017), a work focused on two female Aita—a traditional Moroccan music genre—performers of differing generations with the elder watching the younger rise to stardom, is peppered with cartoon butterflies which emerge from their mouths.
“They had a conflict and the final scene is them meeting to make up,” she recalls. “It’s like a reality TV drama and being in-between them was stressful, but I also put myself in that situation because I was interested in the story.”
Screenshot of Meriem Bennani's video works
Bennani’s narratives thrive as complex and unresolvable mirrors of real-life scenarios, which she reinforces through her quirky, intuitive approach. “A new language is adapted to each specific subject—one scene can feel like reality TV, another animated, whatever makes the most sense without any loyalty to the previous scene’s language,” she remarks. This works to underscore the complexity while indicating her role, and inevitable bias, in exposing it. “I do transform things but the they’re transparent because they’ll be a special effect—it’s never perverse in the way that meaning is changed,” asserts Bennani.
“The effects make it more transparent than a regular documentarian because I’m not hiding the fact the documentary is artificial. It’s a construct, I have full power over the narrative, and I let you know I’m there creating something out of this reality-based footage.”Creating fluid environments likewise translates into the way her works are viewed. Bennani’s films are not readily available outside of exhibitions—though she’s pro a more democratic way for video artists to share their work—but she notes it’s important to physically experience the works given her predilection for building sculptural installations for the videos.
“They all function around the idea of refusing the single-channel as the solution,” she says of the colourful, whimsical installations. “It doesn’t make sense today to offer one screen when we’re constantly navigating multiple screens and perspectives.” She’s also interested in full body perception, and creating interactive 3D viewing environments allows her to develop sculptural and architectural ideas.
“On top of thinking about cutting and timeline and what happens in the video, I get to now think about space as an element for editing, because with multiple screens you see different things and it creates an environment where you develop your own subjective mechanism for looking,” she says, adding, “often you feel if you’re looking in one direction you might miss something, which I think really relates to the contemporary experience where we have so much access to information all the time and not being able to keep up but having to be ok with it.”
From conceptualisation to execution, Bennani proves throughout her body of work that emotionally nuanced motivations are the through line that defines her practice. ■
Images courtesy of Meriem Bennani and Photo Solutions